THE BRAIN ON SYMBOLS: STRATEGIES FOR EXPLORING A LITTLE SYMBOLISM - A Little Bit of Symbols: An Introduction to Symbolism - Henry Reed

A Little Bit of Symbols: An Introduction to Symbolism - Henry Reed (2016)


In this book we will explore a brief overview of what symbols can mean to us and how best to use that knowledge to our advantage. My dream of shoes arrived while I was in psychoanalysis. That work, together with my own practice as a psychotherapist, gave me firsthand experience with the value of symbolism for uncovering parts of ourselves we’d never expect. As a university professor, I researched with students how to create educational exercises for exploring these regions of the mind. Working with the support of members of Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment, I created, researched, and published intuitive methods for expanding consciousness through symbolism.

Let’s begin by looking at what we mean by symbolism. There now exists something akin to a science of symbolism that recognizes certain principles. The first principle is that a symbol points beyond itself. It is an invitation to experience something new. To hear the phrase “this symbol means …” and then hear the judge’s gavel strike—that is not the experience of symbolism. Instead, symbolism is more like having an ah-ha! moment and marveling at the new thoughts and experiences suddenly becoming apparent.

To gain a better feeling for symbols, consider something that happens with dreams. First, imagine a child playing with a ball in the front yard while the parents watch from the porch. The ball rolls out into the street, and the child impulsively runs after it. Seeing the danger causes the parents to involuntarily emit a warning cry for the child to hear. Waking up from a dream is much like the child’s hearing an unsettling, loud noise of warning from the parents, which may or may not slow or stop the child in its tracks. The purpose of a dream seems to be to create in the conscious mind some empathy— even if not consciously understood—for the greater perspective of the unconscious (or Mind-of-God).

A symbol functions to inspire in the conscious mind some degree of empathy for the perspective of the greater unconscious mind. Symbols of long standing in human history express intuitive insights about the human condition. Symbols arising from personal experience, often countered in dreams, function to stimulate new insights about our current relationship to life events.

Rather than thinking in terms of categories, such as “this is a symbol; that is not,” we want to learn to think in terms of function: “Here X is functioning as a symbol; here it is not.” Something is functioning as a symbol, for example, when its purpose is the expanding or evolving of consciousness. Sometimes the symbolic function shapes behavior, perhaps ominously, while the awareness aspect seems lagging.

Something is acting as a symbol if it stimulates us beyond our will and understanding. Ideally, developing a relationship to a symbol’s mystery will stimulate an expansion of consciousness.

Symbols are pregnant with meaning, yet they do not “mean” specifically this or that. Symbols are certainly suggestive, if nothing else, but they do not “signify” something in particular like a sign does. Symbols are certainly used in lieu of explicit understanding, yet their use does not “equate” with something that can be specified. When something “symbolizes,” it evokes thoughts and intuitions of connections between different areas of life. When something is active as a symbol, it is teasing out new realizations. A symbol shares its perspective slowly at the evolutionary rate of “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

That same something is not functioning as a symbol when its purpose is to serve as a substitute, or representative, for something that is already known, identified, or understood, or when it is being treated as if its meaning were so specifically anchored. There are many symbol-like tools that we use as shorthand codes; for example, the dollar sign and the symbols in math and science or in music. Sometimes in literature or the arts, we use objects to represent or suggest other ideas or concepts. We can interpret these signs. Symbols, on the other hand, tease and confound interpretation, preferring to get under our skin, on our brain, and in our heart, stimulating our imagination. Symbols weren’t designed to provide closure—their purpose is to open new possibilities.

Dreaming of a flood of shoes gushing from my closet certainly stimulated my curiosity about the symbolic meaning of shoes. Here I was confronted by the essential challenge with regard to symbolism—how do I gain the expanded awareness that a symbol is stimulating in me?

Earlier I wondered, “What kind of shoes would be best for exploring the world of symbols?” Slippers are comfortable on the feet, that is, unless the terrain gets rough. The advantage of a good pair of hiking boots is that they provide a type of comfort that doesn’t deteriorate in rough terrain. If our interest in the meaning of a symbol is casual, and we intend to stay in our comfort zone, we may find slippers adequate to the task of understanding the symbol. An easy, maybe lazy approach to satisfying a casual curiosity about the meaning of a symbol would be to look it up in our favorite symbol dictionary, or to google the meaning. In either case, we can thus enjoy the cozy feeling we get when we read about something interesting that expands our knowledge.

If we have a personal stake in the symbol—such as because of a recurrent dream—we may no longer be satisfied with the simple comfort of a pair of slippers but may aspire to understanding that requires sturdy hiking boots, as we will wish to maintain confidence as we explore some unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable ideas, feelings, or memories. As we learn various approaches and methods for exploring a symbol from within, we will require the inner stability of affirming our intention or purpose, while also having the flexibility to allow uncommon streams of thought to occur and be noticed in some detail. Such inner explorations of the meaning of a symbol, especially when it has been following us around, will take us beyond our zone of familiar knowledge. Yet, the more we travel in those domains, the more comfortable we become with “not knowing and still learning,” so our understanding can continue to evolve.

I responded to the shoe symbol from my dream in two ways. I asked myself, “What do shoes mean to me?” I also began to do some research on shoes. In other words, I looked both within myself as well as outwardly. We need to be prepared to do both if we want to have a meaningful relationship to symbolism.

The “hermeneutical” tradition, named after the Greek god Hermes, concerns the philosophy and science of interpretation and wisdom. Among its principles, outlined in the often-cited, yet controversial text The Kybalion: A Study of The Hermetic Tradition of Ancient Egypt and Greece, is the principle of “correspondence.” This idea, usually stated as “as Above, so Below,” refers to how the inner world mirrors the outer, how Earth mirrors Heaven, how the human mirrors All of creation, and how each and every of the many individual things mirror the underlying, Unitary source—“the Many are One.”

The purpose or function of symbolism is to grow consciousness, expanding awareness of such important truths about life. When we find something stimulating our interest, stirring our imagination, perhaps there is a symbolic dimension involved. We stand to learn something about ourselves and our relationship to life by exploring that symbol. Our goal is not to find and stop at the symbol’s interpretation, but by following the path of the symbol’s enchantment, we aim to become aware of relationships and connections previously ignored or unconscious. We’ll find that symbols become more real and alive as we allow them to make a difference in how we perceive, understand, and respond to our world.


Feel the sun on your face …

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What’s it like to be stared at?

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